The battle for the soul of Belfast Celtic, 69 years after the club folded

The love for Celtic is everywhere in West Belfast, from the flags outside pubs to the murals celebrating the Lisbon Lions. But what is less well known is that Belfast once had its very own Celtic, a club who were every bit the equal of their cousins over the water in Glasgow.

They played in the same iconic green-and-white jerseys at a ground called Celtic Park (which was also colloquially known as Paradise). Their fans sang the same club anthem, which led to their ‘Grand Old Team’ nickname.

Yet this Celtic haven’t kicked a ball in over 70 years. Their tenure in the Irish League ended in 1949 in a haze of violence, sectarianism and injustice that will come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of politics in this part of the world.

The story of Belfast Celtic is inseparable from the story of Belfast in the first half of the 20th century, and particularly the story of the city’s Catholic community, who provided the majority of the club’s support.

Their formation in 1891 came just three years after their friends across the Irish Sea, with an intention to “imitate their Scottish counterparts in style, play and charity.” Belfast Celtic joined the Irish League in 1896/97 and won their first title in 1899/00, establishing themselves among the premier clubs in the province. They would go on to win the championship in the year directly before and after the First World War, but by that stage political events had begun to overtake them.

The 1910s were, it’s fair to say, a tumultuous time in the religiously divided city of Belfast. As the rest of Ireland moved towards home rule within the British Empire, Belfast’s Protestants began to form organisations to combat what they saw as Rome rule, a Catholic dominance which was seen as inevitable should Dublin be given law-making powers.

When the British brutally put down the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the path towards independence in the vast majority of Ireland was set. In Belfast, though, the sacrifices of the First World War – 2,000 men from the 36th Ulster Division died on the first day of the Somme alone – further cemented the Protestant community’s loyalty to the Empire. As much as the Republican movement saw their martyrs as the executed leaders of 1916, the Unionists in Belfast saw theirs as the dead of Thiepval.

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The end of the war, and the victory of Sinn Fein in the General Election of 1918, would have huge ramifications in Belfast. The unfolding of Ireland’s War of Independence in the south pitted the IRA against the British, but in Belfast the fighting was predominantly between civilians, with almost 500 dying in the conflict.

Areas that had been previously been a mix of Catholics and Protestants were cleansed into mono-cultural blocks. Unionists marched on the shipyards, Belfast’s biggest employer, to force Catholic workers and any left-wing Protestants who supported them from their jobs. Sectarian rioting was often deadly. For Belfast Celtic, Irish Cup winners of 1918 and league champions in 1919/20, the political situation was too much.

“Wild scenes and incidents of a serious character resulted from the Irish Cup semi-final replay at Cliftonville yesterday afternoon when the match had to be abandoned,” reported the Belfast Telegraph in 1920. “There were repeated baton charges by the police inside and outside the enclosure and fierce stone throwing by rival mobs.”

Celtic were held responsible for the riot – though the game was held at a neutral ground – and fined. They withdrew from the league, as did Bohemians and Shelbourne, the only two Dublin-based outfits in the Irish League. It would be a heavy foreshadowing of events to follow.

When Belfast Celtic returned to the division in 1924, it was a changed place. The War of Independence was over and the North of Ireland had been partitioned away into the statelet that exists to this day. The league was strong, but Celtic would come to dominate it: they finished third in their first season back, before topping the pile the following year and the next three campaigns after that.

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Celtic would soon enter their golden age, picking up 10 of the 15 Irish League titles available before the league was suspended on the outbreak of the World War Two. At the time they could conceivably have been said to be among the best teams in Britain, if not the world. Among their ranks were Elisha Scott, the legendary Liverpool keeper; Bertie Fulton, a defender who represented Great Britain at the 1936 Olympics; Sammy Curran, who scored over 170 goals for the club; and Jimmy McAlinden, still widely regarded as one of the best players ever produced in Belfast.

In 1948, the problems that had seen the club withdraw from the league once would rear their head again. Matches against Linfield, the largest Protestant club, were always tense, and a fixture on Boxing Day 1948 would prove fatal for Belfast Celtic.

Celtic had led for the majority of the game, but when Linfield equalised the crowd invaded the pitch and went after several of the Celtic players. Jimmy Jones, Celtic’s centre-forward, was kicked unconscious and had his leg broken, while Kevin McAlinden – who had represented Great Britain at the 1948 Olympics – and Robin Lawlor were also beaten. The police stood by and did nothing.

Ironically, Jones was a Protestant, as were six members of the Celtic team that day, including captain Harry Walker. Linfield at the time operated a sectarian signing policy that excluded Catholics, a policy which would last until well into the 1980s.

After the match, scores of Linfield supporters wrote to the local newspaper in solidarity with Belfast Celtic, while the club themselves denounced the attack. For Celtic, however, the problem was not the invaders per se, but the fact that they had been allowed onto the field at all.

“The attack on our players was without parallel in the annals of football,” read a Celtic statement. “During the whole of this concerted attack, the protection afforded to the unfortunate players may be fairly described as quite inadequate.

“In the circumstances the directors wish to make the strongest possible protest against the conduct of those responsible for the protection of the players in failing to take measures either to prevent the brutal attack or to deal with it with any degree of effectiveness after it developed.”

Needless to say, the Royal Ulster Constabulary of the time were almost 100% Protestant, with many officers also members of the Orange Order. That they failed to protect Belfast Celtic, one the most recognisable Catholic organisations in the city, wasn’t a surprise to anyone.

The decision to withdraw from the league was swift and, this time, it would be permanent. Frank Curran, one of the greatest writers in Northern Irish football journalism, later said of the incident that Belfast Celtic “knew it wasn’t a football problem, and that there was nothing they as a football club could do to end it. So they got out.”

A team who had won 10 titles in 15 years and could claim to be among the best in the world disappeared overnight, never to return. There would be one last hurrah, which perhaps proved just how good the team of 1948/49 was: on a tour of North America they played against the Scotland national team, then unbeaten British Home Champions. Belfast Celtic won 2-1.

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As the club remained dormant, memories of their glory days faded and the name ‘Belfast Celtic’ was almost forgotten. Celtic Park remained in use as a greyhound track until 1985, but no football team sprang up to replace them. On the streets of West Belfast, one can see the hooped shirts of Glasgow Celtic, Ireland national team jerseys and a whole host of Premier League strips, but there’s no team in the local league for these football fans to call their own.

One club is controversially trying to change that, however. Sport & Leisure Swifts, a team playing in the semi-professional third tier, have adopted Belfast Celtic’s name – though quite unilaterally. The decision was taken with a “desire to improve the club, to improve footballing prospects for young people in West Belfast and to promote a high level of sporting excellence.”

“We will look to emulate the passion, professionalism, loyalty, values and history that was evident here in west Belfast 70 years ago,” they added. “We will work closely with the Belfast Celtic Historical Society to ensure that the development of the club is in keeping with the design and ethos of the club that so many cherished and followed.”

An honourable goal – but one which seems to have started on the worst possible footing. The Belfast Celtic Society, formed in 2003 by former fans and the custodians of the club’s name and history, say they have had absolutely nothing to do with the rebranding of Sport & Leisure Swifts.

“The Belfast Celtic Society again reiterates that it has had no involvement in this venture,” they said in a statement. “The Society was only made aware of the development 48 hours before the public announcement.

“The Society was surprised by this announcement and the reaction received from both its membership and the general sporting public has been overwhelmingly negative. To clarify the history of Belfast Celtic FC: The registered company behind this recent proposal is a newly limited company. It is not the original Belfast Celtic Football and Athletic Club Ltd. and therefore has no direct or formal links with the ‘Grand Old Team’.

“Prior to this recent development, those people most important to the story of Belfast Celtic – the former players, their families and the supporters, were not offered any opportunity to make their feelings known. In light of this, it is our concern that this move could potentially damage future football development prospects in West Belfast.”

Sports & Leisure Swifts took to the field for their first game of the season on 18 August under their old name, and it’s still not clear whether they will continue to use it or resurrect the Grand Old Team’s moniker. If they opt for the latter, they will be taking on everything that the name stands for in West Belfast – much to the dismay of the club’s custodians.

“When we had nothing we had Belfast Celtic,” recalls Bill McKavanagh, a lifelong fan. “And then we had everything.”

The battle for the soul of Belfast Celtic, 69 years after the club folded
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